Renovating to survive

Virginia Masser discusses the modernisation of the historic Farmers Club

 

Trained at The Savoy and Claridge’s, Virginia Masser’s career has given her a wealth of experience, which is exactly what was needed in order to successfully reinvigorate this private members club

 

When Virginia joined The Farmers Club her remit from the then Chief Executive Stephen Skinner and with the membership’s backing, was to guide the club through the essential changes, and ones which many historical London clubs need to go through. It was a process Virginia relished from the start to the now beautiful result.

“London clubs are going through changes, they have to protect their future, and with a strong strategy and member backing, most clubs can achieve this. Some clubs say they are not in competition, and it is true we’re all very friendly with each other, but if a person is a member of two clubs, then they are indeed competing,” explains Virginia. “We started by compiling a members’ survey and formulating a club strategy on how best to incorporate what was being used at the club, what wasn’t and why this was so. This strategy has involved protecting the club now and in the future. We are by our very nature all about farming, agriculture and food, and as the majority of our members are farmers who provide home-grown British produce, food had to play an important role moving forward.”

Head Chef Paul Hogben was appointed during this process having worked with Virginia on a previous British food project. “In ten months the food served was of the quality where our members staying overnight would choose to dine in rather than go to a restaurant elsewhere in London. We only use british produce and our ethos is to provide simply cooked, seasonal, quality British food. This was the beginning of the tide turning with members being wowed by what was now included on the menu.”

In addition to the food on offer, Virginia looked at whether the team could produce what was needed for the future of the club. There was a restructuring where the right people were put in place to build each area. Many were chosen from the hospitality industry. “The standards in every department were looked at. It was natural that some were nervous during this period and there were some obstacles. We made sure to listen to everyone’s opinion because the team here are the very fabric of the club. The business had reached the stage where we were turning members away from the restaurant as it was full and turning down functions due to a lack of space and the size of the kitchen could no longer cope with the levels of business. In conjunction with this, the public areas of the club needed refurbishing.”

 

“As the majority of our members are farmers who provide home-grown British produce, food had to play an important role moving forward”

Following a team competition the name ‘CREST’ was decided on for the project; ‘Club, REdevelopment and STrategy’. “The project changed the club completely and was the biggest investment in our history. We stayed open during the whole period with the project lasting six months. Function spaces were converted into office space, the kitchen size was increased and a new reception area was designed, part of our work on improving the welcome to the club so it is now brighter and lighter. We had to make sure we were able to keep the food operational during this process – those staying overnight would need breakfast! For the main function room, the ‘Farmers Suite’ we created the option of a dividing wall and made sure we had the latest state of the art audio and visual equipment installed.”

With changes taking place at speed, it was essential to keep the teams updated so they could inform members. “The next stage was the lounge and bar – a traditional focus in clubs. We looked at other clubs and hotels and worked out how best to incorporate the history of the club and memorabilia. And as we are a home-from-home for members we also added warmth and comfortable seating with the right colours The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly good and while we managed the project it was only possible with the members’ backing. They were very aware of how much work was needed and how it absorbed the management. You aim to please everyone but there will always be a few members who say they preferred it how it was before.

“We’re now looking at the next adventure. So while we can sit back and say this is a job well done, the job may have only just number of guests and that does make the whole project experience worthwhile.”

When asked about the future of member clubs, Virginia says, “People know about high profile clubs but they probably don’t know that so many exist. Some clubs are now making changes and employing people who have backgrounds in the foodservice and hotel sectors. But it is important not to turn clubs into hotels because with members you have a loyal group and their opinion shapes the future. Luckily we have all been forward thinking and the more we do, the better it will be. Membership is going up and those who are members in more than one club are choosing us as their location for events. Of our 5,500 members we have 500 under the age of 30 and this group is the future of the club. We often run at 100% occupancy but it is not consistent so our next steps are to increase occupancy during the quieter times, for example, we may have a family offer during the school holidays. There will always be a need for clubs because people seek a sense of belonging and a home from home. They also allow for great business and networking as members are constantly surrounded by others in the same industry.”

Virginia clearly relished the opportunity to improve the club and tackle nearly every aspect of the members’ overall enjoyment. It is a series of changes that she believes can be painful but by building the right team positive change can be achieved, improve the business and service our member’s needs.